The Best Leader You’ve Never Heard Of
Meet Nick Johnson. He’s probably the best leader you’ve never heard of.
Coach Johnson is the head football coach at Earlham College, a liberal arts institution in Richmond, Indiana. Earlham is home to just over 1,000 students, and its Quaker athletic programs compete in the NCAA Division III Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC). The Earlham football program’s results on the field can be summarized in a single word:
Since 1889 Earlham football has won just 36% of its games (360-605-23) and a dreary 24% of its conference contests (48-152). In the last five seasons, Earlham has gone 0-10, 1-8, 2-8, 0-10, and 0-10. This past year, the first under Coach Johnson’s guidance, the Quaker defense gave up roughly 58 points per game en route to the program’s second straight winless season.
But before you completely write off Earlham Quaker football, you must study the story behind the stat line. Just 12 short days ago, the unthinkable happened:
Coach Johnson was named the HCAC coach of the year.
In a statement announcing the honor, the conference cited: “respect for Johnson and his dedication to his profession, his program and his personal life” as key reasons for honoring the Quakers’ head coach. The statement continued: “Coach Johnson instills life lessons to his student athletes on the field while embodying real life challenges.”
How is this possible? An 0-10 coach named coach of the year?
Perhaps the better question is: How is it possible that Coach Johnson had the strength to coach at all?
Over the past two years, Johnson’s wife Melissa has spent over 500 nights in various hospitals—from the Mayo Clinic, to Indiana University, to the University of Cincinnati—battling a debilitating chain reaction of health challenges, ranging from severe intestinal problems to cerebral spinal leaking and brain swelling. From life flight helicopter rides to innumerable operations (Johnson said he “lost count after 13”), the Johnson family journey has been about anything but football. In addition to these unfathomable life challenges and the demands of a being a head football coach, Johnson is doing his best to raise Jayden and Jacob, ages 6 and 4, as their mother fights for her life.
When Johnson was offered the opportunity to take the helm of the rebuilding effort at Earlham, after serving as an assistant coach for the previous decade, he made up his mind to turn it down. His commitment and concern for his family outweighed his desire to fulfill his dream of being a head football coach. That is, until Melissa refused to take no for an answer. From her hospital bed she told her husband to fulfill his leadership calling—impacting the lives of young men on the grid iron.
But coach at Earlham? 3-46 in the last 5 years Earlham? Why would anyone want to take on what some might call an impossible challenge?